- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

A child today, if he aspires to anything other than Slack itself, aspires to one of three "crafts": acting, sports, or rock 'n' roll. He wants to either play a part, play a game or play guitar. He wants to be a player. The work ethic has been replaced by the shirk-and-perks ethic: "I'd rather be (insert doing anything but my job here)." Girls just wanna have fun, the kids are all right, life's a beach, and thank God it's Friday in America.
Fewer and fewer people want to do anything at all, much less anything difficult. This should make us very nervous. Census data reveal the creation of a dangerously unstable and unsustainable "two-tier" society. In California, for instance, median family income is 12 percent higher than the nation's, but the state has much higher levels of poverty than the national average. California's middle class is the second smallest in the United States. Mexican immigration to the state is running (officially) at 300,000 a year.
"While [immigrants] fill an insatiable demand for low-skilled labor in California, they also create enormous burdens for education, health care and social service systems," notes the Sacramento Bee.
As the Slack Society evolves, we will need to import several million laborers a year to keep the streets swept and the crops picked. This will tend to replace our current First World population over a fairly short amount of time with a distinctly Third World one. Either that, or a moratorium on immigration will allow existing immigrants to gradually "take up slack" themselves through racial entitlement politics.
It requires only one generation (less than 20 years) to shed the work ethic in modern America ask the foreign-born parents of Asian-Americanized teens. Even the middle-class Cubans who fled Fidel Castro now have a lot of children in the handout crowd, if Cuban-Americans' current turn away from the GOP is any indication. In other words, all those people now so nobly "doing work Americans won't do," in President. Bush's phrase, won't necessarily be doing it for long. And then what?
Of course everybody wants his children to go to college and not have to work with their hands; it's called upward mobility. As a truck-driving cousin of mine observes, though, "Everybody can't be sitting at a desk. You still need people who do and make and fix things." But please, Lord, not my kids.
Gradually the horror of manual labor seems to have merged into a horror of all labor. The great divide between red and blue on that famous electoral map of America is essentially between those who do and know how to do things, who welcome and honor work, and those who don't, can't or won't. The blue regions regard the red with much the same mix of dread and dependency as the Eloi felt toward the Morlocks in The Time Machine.
Election 2000 proved there are already more blue parasites in this country than red providers a lot of the former were too lazy to even get off their duffs and vote, despite legions of Democratic enablers.
On the distaff side, to use an archaic term from the old world of work, the trade of housewife and mother is now considered lowest of the low, the ultimate dirty-handed, hands-on horror. "Supermom" Madonna revealed to Britain's Sunday Mirror, "I don't have any problems with nappies because I have never changed one." Childlessness is now a full-fledged social movement with slogans and bumper stickers and T-shirts and all, and one of its biggest boasts is that "No Children" means never having to descend into the nightmare region of diapers, colic, vomit, chickenpox, smelly socks in the hamper, sticky fingerprints on the wall, and peanut butter and jelly.
Man has rightly been called "Homo faber," "Man the maker." We make wonderful things that work and are useful and beautiful, and the more advanced our culture, the more wonderful the things we make (which is why the term "Afghan engineering" lacks the same cachet as "German engineering").
People still instinctively know this and are uneasy about the increasingly hands-off economy. The Oshkosh clothing company stopped making genuine farmers' overalls some years ago because of lack of demand, but still makes them for toddlers, teen-agers and suburban matrons. Denim, fabric par excellence of men at work, is now the international uniform of the New World Order, an unsubtle homage to the noble Proletariat; denim is safer even than black as a fashion statement. This nostalgic prole-playing is not new Marie-Antoinette had a little model farm at Versailles where she and her ladies could play dairymaid but it is now far more widespread, mass democratized.
Yet the average person, individually and en masse, is not to blame for the New Worthlessness. Work has been radically "de-incentivized." People have gone slack because they've got too little control over their lives. They've been made to see they have only the most negligible impact on the human enterprise: six billion "only little people paying taxes" without a stake in the game. They've been reduced to playing the lottery in hopes of registering, if only for an instant, as a player in their own life story.
The antebellum South was highly inefficient and unproductive despite because of the bright idea of not paying its labor force; and like slaves on the plantations or the Irish under English rule, people robbed of self-determination become passive-aggressive. They slack off. They become slow and sly and pray for Friday.
The September terrorist attack taught three lessons about work in America:
First, in such supreme moments, those who emerge as heroes are those who can do things, the firefighters, the policemen, the emergency rescue workers, the medical technicians. Just as startling as hearing the name of the Lord suddenly burst from the lips of hardened reporters was hearing those same white-collar sophisticates rhapsodize over the know-how of the welders and the iron- and steel-workers who were indeed, in the aftermath of the destruction, "just doing their jobs."
Second, not doing your job can have disastrous results. From top to bottom of the economic hierarchy, from the superterrestrial heights of national security to the humble checkpoints of airport security, people had not been doing their jobs, jobs that the traveling millions have depended on for their lives since terrorist attacks on civil aviation began in the 1960s. As for the loftier security apparatus, we have paid our experts billions over the decades precisely to think the unthinkable and plan for the unimaginable. We may have been in denial, but they weren't supposed to be. The sudden massive short-selling of airline and insurance stock prior to Sept. 11 was apparently not red-flagged, nor were the comings and goings and suspicious contacts and training among known associates of Muslim terrorist groups. We can have all the "proper procedures in place" (as Janet Reno so loved to say) and all the monitors and guidelines and security cameras and high-tech systems in the world, but if no one is paying attention and interpreting the data competently, they are all for naught.
Third, shifting into war mode will be easier said than done. Preparedness cannot be acquired overnight. We can't just push a button marked "Deploy" and suddenly have battalions of trained fortitude at our fingertips. "Ah doubled the number of CIA agents when Ah was president," Bill Clinton whined recently. No, he only doubled the money; agents weren't hired or trained with it. As slacker extraordinaire, Mr. Clinton never understood that spending money is not the equivalent of working.
It is to be hoped given the war in which our nation now finds itself that we will relearn these lessons that a job well done is of primary, central importance to human society; that labor ennobles while idleness degrades; and that a people is only as strong as the good work it does. The days of the "service" and "information" economy that neither served nor informed have got to be over, or we will not survive.

Marian Kester Coombs is a free-lance writer based in the Washington area.

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